Is the sun setting on the US imperium?

May 15, 2017

China is on the march to a dominant military footprint while American policy lacks strategic intent.

On May 1, the 19,500-ton helicopter carrier Izumo of the Maritime Self-Defense Force — Japan’s largest post-1945 naval vessel — left the naval base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, to provide armed escort to a U.S. Navy supply ship off the Boso Peninsula in Chiba Prefecture. This marked the first operation by the MSDF to protect U.S. military vessels since the enactment of two new security laws in 2015 that loosened key constraints of the pacifist Constitution, allowing Self-Defense Forces personnel to guard vessels and weapons belonging to U.S. forces engaged in activities relating to the defense of Japan. The supply ship under Izumo’s escort will refuel other U.S. vessels deployed in waters near Japan.

Meanwhile on April 26, China launched its first indigenously built aircraft carrier. Its first carrier, the Liaoning, was made from a retrofitted Soviet hull and launched on Sept. 25, 2012. Although primitive by U.S. standards, the launch of a home-built carrier marks both a symbolic milestone and a vital statement of geopolitical intent at a time when U.S. policy on Asia seems adrift without any coherent strategic intent and the new president is “sowing confrontations with allies,” according to an article in The Wall Street Journal. Aircraft carriers will give operational content to the shift in China’s maritime strategy from the defense of offshore waters to open-sea protection.

I have noted in my previous columns that the deliverables from the 2014 BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa) summit were economic in form and content — the creation of a New Development Bank and a Contingency Reserve Arrangement — but its larger import was geopolitical: the rising powers were rewiring the institutions of global economic governance so they would no longer run through Western capitals. This was followed by the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the launch of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative. The last is simply mind-boggling in scale and ambition.

In retrospect, the “Made in USA” global financial crisis of 2008 would seem to be the moment when China chose to discard Deng Xiaoping’s counsel of hiding its light under a bushel and biding its time. The growth of its comprehensive national power has been accompanied, it now seems clear, by a sophisticated strategy of harnessing that power to serve China’s security and commercial interests on the global stage. In particular, massive economic growth has given China the financial wherewithal to acquire military muscle to serve three layers of a national security strategy.

First, China seeks primacy to protect the mainland and its immediate coastal and littoral territories up to the first island chain. Second, it seeks to acquire the military means to counter coercion by a hostile force through strategic interdiction in the zone up to the second island chain. And third, it is steadily acquiring force projection capability to various distant spots around the Pacific and Indian oceans, and in time even farther afield, as befits a global power with far-flung suppliers of raw materials and markets for finished products. In other words China’s military operating environment has been progressively enlarged and transformed from a regional into a global one, such that its military can be deployed at increasing distance from home.

In managing the potentially fraught relationship between an ascendant China and a declining America, one major problem for both is their lack of experience in dealing with a rival peer in a system of great powers. One major asset for the U.S. is its network of allies and friends. China’s two main allies are major diplomatic liabilities.

That said, Beijing has pursued a three-pronged strategy to deepen commercial and institutional relations with neighboring countries to enmesh them in a dense web of engagement; to exploit China-U.S. economic interdependence to raise the costs of any U.S. assistance to Asian states under Chinese pressure; and to question the legitimacy of and confidence in the U.S. alliance system in the Asia-Pacific region.

U.S. President Donald Trump risks playing into China’s hands with his “America First” policies that ignore the contribution of U.S.-created and enforced norms and institutions in sustaining global U.S. engagement without having to use hard power.

To invert former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s aphorism, for a superpower operating in a globalized world, all nationalist politics is global. Asian states nervous about China’s growing resort to muscular diplomacy will welcome the U.S. counterweight but not a propensity to reckless brinksmanship. A reputation for sober leadership and sustained commitment takes decades to build but is easy to squander.

China’s growing ability to pursue anti-access and area denial strategies in Asia-Pacific can be countered by Washington working with Asian states to build their own capacity to limit Chinese access in geographical pockets around China’s periphery. Otherwise the U.S. could lose an empire in a fit of presidential absentmindedness. Depending on how skilful or ham-fisted China is, the best U.S. bets in slowing down China’s march to a dominant continental and a growing global military footprint are Australia, India and Japan.

China’s strategic opposition to India’s rise — in contrast with the generally accommodative posture shown by the U.S. toward China as the global rising power — is openly on display in rejecting New Delhi’s claims to permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council, vetoing its application to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, blocking U.N. efforts to list Pakistan-based individuals as terrorists, etc.

Potentially the most powerful U.S. partner in Asia, India suffers from chronic weaknesses with currently only a part-time defense minister. While China walks the walk, India talks the talk. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is busy consolidating political power through short-term and damaging populist policies, echoing Trump’s style of loud boasts of impressive achievements that often show an estranged relationship to facts.

India still cannot escape the traps of violent protests from a disaffected population in Kashmir, continual border skirmishes with Pakistan, and sporadic incidents of attacks on security and paramilitary forces by Maoist insurgents. Caste divisions remain entrenched in every aspect of public life. Key reforms to the educational sector, administrative structure, infrastructure, military procurement and organizational structure are neglected. China’s strategic encirclement of India with growing acquisition of over-the-horizon military assets and presence in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and even some locations in Africa around the Indian Ocean rim, continue apace while Modi’s hard-line Hindu supporters are preoccupied with dietary issues like beef consumption.

This article was first published in the Japan Times on 10 May 2017

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

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